Many, many years ago when I was an aspiring young actress in Dublin, I was a member of Sarah Allgood's Abbey Theater drama class. Anyone who wished to get a role in the dramatic productions had to be a member of this class. We met two afternoons a week, five girls and two boys, on the Abbey Theater stage. We were lined up in military formation, facing a dark empty house, while Miss Allgood marched up and down in front of us, rather in the manner of a sergeant-major, ordering us to breathe in and breathe out.
"IT must rise upm from the stomach," came from her in sonorous tones. "Now say Aaaah."
We all roared "Aaaah."
"Not bad, but not good. I should be able to hear you in O'Connell Street. Now say Oooooh."
We all roared "Oooooh."
"I want that Oooooh fuller and richer."
A frightened looking little lady had appeared below the stage. "Miss Allgood , you're wanted on the phone," she bleated.
"Thank you, Bessie. While I am gone go over your recitations. We are all asked to tea in the Green Room. Lady Gregory is bringing her cake."
We all looked at each other in frightened silence. Supposing we were asked to recite! And we had heard gossip about the cake.It was said to be appalling. Sand mixed with potatoes. And all the famous ones would be there, like Barry Fitzgerald and Maureen Delaney. It was too much. One of the boys began hiccuping nervously. Obediently, we sat on the floor -- there were no chairs --and studied our homework. We had been handed out dramatic pieces of verse to recite -- with gestures. Mine was a splendid piece of bathos. I've never forgotten it. "'Thank you for the flowers you sent,' she saidm (eyes cast down), and then she blushed and shyly dropped her head.m (Head down and hands clasped). 'I'm sorry for the words I spoke last night, the flowers have sweetly proved that you were right.'m (Look up and smile trustingly.) Then I forgave her, took her hand in minem (now become very manly) and as we wandered through the dimlit bowersm (stare open-mouthed at audience), I wondered who on earth had sent those flowers."m
The hiccuping boy had a piece called "The First Crocus" which didn't seem at all suitable. My neighbor Joyce had been handed "The Rosary" which Miss Allgood said was better spoken than sung. Half an hour passed.Suddenly a cadaverous looking young man appeared, whom we all recognized as "Boss" Shields, Barry Fitgerald's brother, and asked angrily: "Where's Sally?"
"She's on the phone to London," answered Michael respectfully.
"Blazes! Doesn't she know Lady G. is to be in the Green Room at 4:30 and we want the stage at 5:00?
At that moment Miss Allgood returned. She was a regal figure in those days. Plump. Black hair drawn back in a bun, earrings dangling, and she usually wore black. Her hat was the shape of a large toadstool with floating veil.
"Sorry, Boss. London was calling."
Boss gave her a terrible look and vanished into the wings.
Miss Allgood addressed us: "Now ladies and gentlemen, I want to hear you keening. Keening, as you know, is an Irish expression of great sorrow expressed in the form of wailing." She demonstrated. It was blood-curdling. "All this woman's children have been drowned, a gale is blowing round the islands. Lift your hands above your head and bring them slowly down to your sides, wailing at the same time. Girls keen while kneeling. Men stand while keening. Wirra Wirra."
We wirrad, wirrad, and wirrad. The noise was so alarming two of the stage hands who had been playing cards behind the flats emerged, laughed derisively and returned to their card game.
"Now, girls, if you really wish to appear on this stage professionally,m you must abandon yourself to grief. Wirra, wirra."
I still remember the smell of the dusty dirty stage floor and the dust almost choking me as I wirrad.
"You have all, I trust, prepared your recitations. Michael, would you kindly stop coughing and begin. Take center stage if you please."
Boss reappeared wearing the mask of doom. "Tea is being served," he announced. "You're all to come into the Green Room."
We trooped obediently after Miss Allgood rather like a school crocodile. Most of the company was there already, listening respectfully to Lady Gregory. She was a dumpy little woman wearing a lace mantilla over her white hair. There was already a brown teapot on the table and cups and saucers, also the well-known cake.
"Welcome, welcome," said the great lady kindly as if addressing the peasants. "Sit down and have a nice hot cup and Boss will cut the cake. You are Miss Algood's students, I understand, and after tea I hope you will perform for us." Barry fitzgerald, who was seated on Lady Gregory's right, grinned and winked encouragingly at us, but we were all too frightened to respond. The cake was cut and handed round to the victims. My mother said when I told her about the proceeding, "It's like the soup the Proestants handed out to the Catholics during the famine, hoping it would convert them." I was fearful taken aback when Barry Fitgerald whispered in my ear as he handed me a slice, "Have a bit of bog."
Meanwhile Lady G. conducted a dialogue with Maureen Delaney about the weather. Lennox Robinson, the director, sat crouched in a chair with his hand over his eyes.
Miss Allgood rose and to my horror addressed me. "Mary, please to stand up and say your piece for Lady Gregory. Joyce will follow with hers."
My mouth was so dry with fright i could barely open it and my knees were visibly knocking together. How I got through with it I will never know, but I did. Joyce followed and recited in terrified gulps. Both pieces mercifully were short; I suspect that was why they were chosen.
"Veddy good. Veddy good, indeed. I wish Willie Yeats was here." (Lady Gregory had a curious accent; she could not pronounce her ahs.)
Then Boss called everyone to rehearsal and we were allowed to go home -- which we did thankfully.
Two weeks later Joyce and I were cast in "The Playboy of the Western World." Very tiny parts, but, oh, what bliss. The class, however, had been disban ded. Miss Allgood had been called to London. ah, wirra! wirra!